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Chilis: Red, Hot and Green

Past an adobe Jiffy Lube and the Hacienda Home Center, past Woofy Bubble's Woowear in the hippie ex-mining town of Madrid, we zoom from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, capsuled in a big blue Buick. I haven't come here to nurse a chili addiction, stock up on cornhusk Victoriana, enroll in a class on mesa metaphysics, or scour the real estate boards for a second home. My mission?To inspect the state of affairs at New Mexico's restaurants. Are chili fires and salsa wars still raging through their kitchens, or have younger chefs traded fierce regionalism for a more globally minded policy?But first, some tastes of the real Southwest.

A Bar, a Burrito, a Burger

In Santa Fe, I ask two women for directions to Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, famous for its 70-plus margarita list. They laugh. "We just moved here yesterday-- from New York." I figure it's only a matter of days until they know their way there blindfolded. They'll come to renounce frozen slush and master the Cuervo Gold vs. Herradura Silver dialectic. Premium tequilas are the magnet at this archetypal cantina, also known for its chicken fajitas. But beware. Halfway through La Ultima (mixed with 100 percent agave El Tesoro tequila), my companion begins to wax lyrical about its "palpable cactoid sensation." Thin air and tequila do this to you.

Our morning-after cure is a breakfast burrito devoured in a wooden booth amid the familial clutter of rugs, pottery, and garlands of chili at Tia Sophia's. I've always dodged breakfast burritos-- wrapped-up sludge, plus beans . . . with coffee?-- but here, encased in a cheese-filled tortilla envelope, all the textures and flavors of morning come clean and intact. Lacy shredded potatoes, crackling bacon, plush scrambled eggs, surrounded by a lava of kickin' green chili.

We follow the green-chili trail to a roadside burger shrine called Bobcat Bite, just southeast of Santa Fe. Bobcat's legendary green-chili cheeseburger says "Southwestern Americana" more eloquently than all the turquoise pendants and Navajo rugs rolled into one. A plain bun toasted to a perfect tan, a hefty disk of beef, biting chili, gooey cheese. The sides are potato chips-- home fries are extra-- and a great slaw.

Adobe All the Way

Of Santa Fe's baby-boomer restaurants, such as Coyote Café and Santacafé, Geronimo generates the loudest local buzz. It's partly the scene at the bar, partly the gifted new chef, Eric Distefano, but mainly it's the magic of this multiroom 18th-century adobe: tan leather chairs, corner banquettes, and piñon popping in the fireplace.

Geronimo's painterly food presentations-- does the kitchen employ a full-time sauce drizzler?-- take you back to the late 1980's. But the cooking itself is transnational-neoclassical. Prosciutto-wrapped greens, presented like Japanese hand rolls, are a cute idea, though I wish the Pollock-wannabe wouldn't stint on the basil and black-vinegar sauces. The grilled freshwater lobster with angel-hair pasta, beside a carpet of green and pink aiolis, easily trumps the art at the Canyon Road galleries next door. When you ruin the pattern by recklessly smearing the sauces over lobster and pasta, the dish is a spicy triumph. Next, a study in pink: grilled salmon napoleon with spinach and pastry in a Thai red-pepper sauce, followed by a hunk of charbroiled elk on scallion risotto, the least visual but most delicious dish.

Bistro with a World Beat

"They were lovers but they had separate beds. She was Swiss-German, he was English." Every piece of gossip traded by the execs at a corner table is amplified by the spareness of Ristra, a year-old restaurant in a Victorian building. Though Southwestern motifs do sneak into chef David Farrell's food, his laid-back cuisine embraces the post-fusion global bistro aesthetic that's finally hitting Gen-X New Mexican restaurants. Farrell has cooked in San Francisco and Provence; his partner, Eric Lamalle, a transplanted Parisian, collects cowboy boots.

To start, a mound of mussels arrives in a coconut-cilantro broth. Brandade-- here a seared patty instead of the usual salt-cod purée-- is set on a translucent fennel-and-sweet-pepper Provençale sauté. The tamale, a husk-bundled pillow of sweet potatoes and chicken, is framed by a runny pesto that sends whiffs of a Riviera summer into the mesquite-perfumed room. Grilled wahoo with basmati rice is a miss, but the duck-leg confit has shattering skin and luxurious flesh, served with soupy lentils and a dab of green chili.

High Road to Taos

"Folks from Paguate reservation send good luck to Mike on his wrestling match," the radio chirps as we set off for Taos. Twenty minutes later we're sitting in El Paragua, an immensely popular lunch spot for Santa Feans, just off the main drag of America's low rider capital, Espanola.

El Paragua, housed in a vintage hacienda, is flawlessly típico: ceramic tiles, heavy beams, heavy chairs, heavy customers, Los Panchos trio crooning in the background. The New Mexican menu of enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, and mesquite-grilled meats is also true to form. This is the kind of place where the urge to order a "Mexican combo" is almost forgivable. After all, it comes piled with spiced chunks of carne adovada, rice, refried beans, tamale, taco . . . and mucho más. By itself, every item is delicious, but somehow it all melts into a cheese-plastered glob. The sopaipillas, however, are glorious puffs of fried dough, and the bread pudding alone is worth a trip.

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